After expressing suicidal thoughts, 11-year–old Ella waited for four hours in a crowded emergency room hallway at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford before she was able to be moved into a room. She then had to wait another six days until a bed opened up at the Institute of Living. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only caused millions of deaths and severe illnesses, it has also impacted the mental health of countless people, including children like Ella. From school closures, to mask-wearing, and quarantines, the youth educational experience is one entirely different from the one you or I had.

This pandemic has caused a significant increase in mental health issues for kids. In 2021, a national emergency for pediatric mental health was declared by several pediatric health organizations. According to a CDC report on the national trends of pediatric mental health conditions, the proportions of mental health-related visits in emergency departments in 2020 increased by 24% among children aged 5-11 years and 31% among adolescents aged 12-17, when compared to visits in 2019. Here, the Connecticut Children’s emergency department saw upwards of 40 children a day in need of mental health help in April of 2021, and the Yale Children’s Hospital Emergency Department noted an increase from 1 to 2 daily patients in 2019 to around 26 patients per day with mental health needs in 2021. 

Erin DeMarco

At a children’s mental health panel at the end of October 2021, doctors and mental health experts highlighted that the overflow of children in mental health crises in emergency departments was partially due to the fact that parents are often unaware of the alternatives – in their communities and schools – to emergency departments. These emergency department trips typically lead to expensive, long stays due to limited bed space and the lack of inpatient psychiatric facilities. 

The pediatric mental health crisis is considered one of the top concerns in the state capitol this year. Numerous bills have been raised to address this issue, including Senate Bill 1 and Senate Bill 2. Additionally, Gov. Ned Lamont has recently proposed deploying $160m in new behavioral health funding. Some of this funding would be dedicated to projects such as developing a new 12-bed psychiatric unit at Connecticut Children’s Medical Health Center, expanding mobile crisis interventions, and improving data collection on race, ethnicity, and language in healthcare. 

However, what is missing from this mental health funding is support for the community-based nonprofits that deliver most of the state-sponsored social services. Gov. Lamont needs to direct funding towards these community nonprofits because they work to serve as a crucial first step for families in need of seeking mental health support instead of having to resort to overcrowded emergency rooms. 

Community nonprofit organizations have lost an estimated $461 million in state funding that has not kept pace with inflation rates. On top of this, a recent survey co-authored by the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance found that one in five nonprofits experience financial troubles, and about 36% are struggling to serve the communities that need their support. Gian-Carl Casa, the president of the Alliance, noted that people who had worked for these nonprofits are starting to leave and go to places where they can get paid more. Especially since 68% of nonprofits claim that the demand for services has increased since the onset of the pandemic, more funding needs to be directed towards paying nonprofit staff desirable wages so these organizations can have the workforce to tackle the demand. 

If more funding is provided to these nonprofits, then Connecticut’s system of addressing pediatric mental health will become more balanced. Instead of having to resort to emergency rooms and potentially spend hours in waiting rooms, families would be able to seek assistance from their local nonprofit organizations. Such community-based mental health care would allow children to receive early treatment and rehabilitation while maintaining relationships with families and friends. Community nonprofits are the safety net, but they need funding to thrive as such. Such funding would allow families like Ella’s to have more services in their communities to avoid the need for potential inpatient and residential treatment for their children. 

Erin DeMarco is a junior at Trinity College majoring in Public Policy and Law.